Hapa Ramen chef Richie Nakano is known for his hot takes on Twitter, but even his most ardent banter buddies were left speechless by the news that he'd been fired from the restaurant over the weekend. Nakano told Inside Scoop that tech investor Owen Van Natta (Facebook, Zynga), who'd bought both the Hapa Ramen name and brand in order to help Nakano get his brick-and-mortar open, decided to let him go after only four months in business, out of concern that the restaurant had yet to turn a profit. Of course, as any small businessperson can tell you, that's an absurd timeline for a business of Hapa's size to reach that goal—much less a new restaurant in the highly competitive San Francisco market.
Nakano says that Van Natta, concerned about Hapa's finances, brought on director of operations Deborah Blum (formerly of Starbelly and Beretta), and that the pair strongly encouraged him to change his menu, in order to cut costs in both the food and labor departments. "I said we can trim here and there, while we keep going in the right direction," he told Inside Scoop. "But my food is my food, so to dumb it down or use not good ingredients — I can't do that."
For her part, Blum told Inside Scoop that "the viability of the business was seriously in question...a drastic change in strategy was necessary." But it seems that the Culinary Sassmouth™ also got himself in hot water thanks to his take-no-prisoners Internet personality. In addition to his hilarious and profane tweets, Nakano has never been shy about backtalking Yelpers, and he even took Michael Bauer to the mat with a pointed menu annotation after receiving a mixed review a couple of weeks ago. Blum was clearly not a fan: "I believe that the social media personality and the customer reviews of a business are very important and we are looking forward to creating a more positive environment in both of those regards," she told Inside Scoop.
The firing has thrown Hapa's entire operation into disarray: the restaurant has been shuttered since Saturday, with a voicemail message saying it's closed "indefinitely," and the entire staff appears to have been let go. It's unclear whether Blum and Van Natta, who are also opening nearby Citizen Fox later this year, will keep the concept or shift to an entirely new one, especially with #BoycottHapaRamen becoming a hot hashtag among Nakano's fans and friends on Twitter. But either way, the loss is a devastating one for Nakano, who worked for five years to build the Hapa brand through his farmer's market stand and pop-ups.
I'm very sad about not being a part of Hapa anymore. It was my baby, my life, and it's been taken away from me.— Richie Nakano (@linecook) March 28, 2015
But I'm not going to be a part of something that dilutes five years of hard work, sacrifice and passion to make a quick buck— Richie Nakano (@linecook) March 28, 2015
Like, if you read that inside scoop piece they say they want a different personality for the social media. People LOVE the Hapa social media— Richie Nakano (@linecook) March 28, 2015
RIP Hapa Ramen 2010-2015. The past five years brought me some of the best people and experiences I've ever had in my life. (1/2)— Richie Nakano (@linecook) March 30, 2015
It's been a very difficult, sad week but I'm still proud of everything Hapa accomplished and stood for. I'm happy that Hapa existed. (2/2)— Richie Nakano (@linecook) March 30, 2015
Update, 12:57 pm: The Hapa situation keeps getting weirder. The restaurant's website has been taken down, as has its Tumblr. However, its Twitter account remains online, and Nakano or one of his staff appear to still have the keys to the Facebook page:
Update, 7:37 pm: Blum and Van Natta have released a statement to the press that reads as follows:
- Richie Nakano was an employee, not an owner. He sold his ownership and the Hapa brand in July 2014 for $20,000 and was hired to the executive chef position with above-market salary and full health benefits. As part of the terms, Nakano accepted certain responsibilities as executive chef and signed an employment agreement that required him to efficiently manage food and labor costs. Unfortunately, those costs were consistently and significantly over budget (twice the industry standard). Management provided Nakano with every possible opportunity to generate a solution, but culinary expenses remained well beyond a reasonable range. Nakano was not expected to make Hapa profitable in the course of four months' time; the critical issue is that he refused to cooperate with management to acknowledge and remedy financial concerns and work with stakeholders to put Hapa on track toward profitability.
- Nakano was not fired. He presented a list of demands and told the owners that if they did not agree to these conditions, he would quit. His proposed terms conflicted with the employment agreement he signed and were unworkable, and the parties agreed to a mutual separation.
- Hapa staff was not fired. All but two of Hapa's line cooks are currently employed by the business; today they're doing prep work for a tasting related to the concept that will replace Hapa. The management also extended an offer of income to Hapa's top servers and the kitchen staff to support them during the restaurant's period of closure.
- We believe that Richie Nakano is incredibly talented and our intent was to partner with Richie to operate a viable and successful restaurant business. We sincerely wish him the very best.
For his part, Nakano disputes the statement. "I would never leave the thing that I built and loved," he told Inside Scoop. "They made it clear that they did not want me working there any longer." He also told The Bold Italic that 35 of the restaurant's servers, cooks, and bartenders lost their jobs.